Atal Behari Vajpayee in Berlin in 2003. Several recent books have studied Vajpayee’s life and career before his ascent to power as a microcosm of India’s post-independence history from the perspective of the opposition and the Hindu Right. Photo: IMAGO / photothek
Atal Behari Vajpayee in Berlin in 2003. Several recent books have studied Vajpayee’s life and career before his ascent to power as a microcosm of India’s post-independence history from the perspective of the opposition and the Hindu Right. Photo: IMAGO / photothek

The fading mirage of a “liberal” Vajpayee

Abhishek Choudhary’s new biography of Atal Behari Vajpayee examines the life and legacy of India’s first BJP prime minister, puncturing misguided liberal nostalgia and the hero-worship of the Hindu Right

In April 2002, Atal Behari Vajpayee, then India's prime minister, toured the state of Gujarat, where communal riots had recently left some 2000 people dead, most of them Muslims. During the tour, he addressed a now-famous press conference also attended by Narendra Modi, then the chief minister of Gujarat and since 2014 the prime minister of India. A journalist asked Vajpayee what advice he had for Modi. Vajpayee replied, "He should perform raj dharma" the duty of a ruler. As an uncomfortable Modi could be seen trying to attract his attention.

Modi's critics both within and outside of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), of which Vajpayee was a founder, point to this press conference to highlight what they feel is a stark contrast between the two leaders. Many today consider Vajpayee to have been comparatively more inclusive in his politics, while Modi is often thought to be more hard-line. The latter's nearly decade-long rule of India has been described by myriad observers as a strongman regime, with declining press freedom and democratic backsliding.

The 2002 Gujarat riots continue to haunt Modi. He has variously been accused of engineering or abetting them, or at the least of administrative incompetence in failing to prevent them, although India's Supreme Court has exonerated him of all charges. With a national election looming, Modi remains sensitive to any association with the 2002 violence. In 2023, his government banned a BBC documentary, India: The Modi Question, which referred to a British government report holding Modi responsible for the "climate of impunity" that allowed for the bloodshed under his watch.

Vajpayee, too, was reportedly unhappy with how Modi had dealt with the crisis, and had wanted to sack him. The "raj dharma" remark was understood as a rebuke for failing in his duties. But Vajpayee was outmanoeuvred by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the parent organisation of the BJP, and by Lal Krishna Advani, his number two in the party and the government. Vajpayee backed down and Modi stayed on.

Despite their differences, Modi has continued, at least in public, to honour his predecessor. When Vajpayee died, in 2018, Modi led a procession of mourners through Delhi. His government has nurtured the memory of Vajpayee by naming multiple places and infrastructure facilities after him.

'Vajpayee: The Ascent of the Hindu Right, 1924–1977' by Abhishek Choudhary. Pan Macmillan India (May 2023)
'Vajpayee: The Ascent of the Hindu Right, 1924–1977' by Abhishek Choudhary. Pan Macmillan India (May 2023)

"Going by the number of things recently named after Vajpayee, his stock soars by the hour," writes the journalist Abhishek Choudhary in the first book of his two-volume biography of Vajpayee. "The list includes: the newly developed state capital of Chhattisgarh, a dozen-odd welfare schemes and universities, memorials and libraries, airports and stadiums, roads and bridges: a mountain peak here, a long tunnel there, even a newly crossbred variety of lemongrass." This commemorative spree began, Choudhary informs us, after Vajpayee's death, possibly to cash in on his enduring popularity. Main Atal Hoon, a biopic starring the Bollywood actor Pankaj Tripathi, is slated for release in January 2024. Vajpayee's birthday, 25 December, is now officially marked in India as Good Governance Day. Not purely by coincidence, this clashes with Christmas, which some critics claim is added proof of the Modi government's agenda against the country's religious minorities.

So what explains Vajpayee's continued popularity, at least among many Hindus, nearly two decades after he was voted out of power? "For the BJP—a party glaringly devoid of icons—Vajpayee was the first authentic homegrown hero who was loved and respected by the masses," Choudhary writes. He was, after all, the first leader from the Hindu Right to become the prime minister of India, leading the BJP to electoral superiority in the Lok Sabha, the Indian parliament's lower house, in the 1996 national election. But even before that, Vajpayee was a major player in India's post-independence national politics.

First elected to the Lok Sabha in 1957, he was one of the most important opposition leaders for four-and-a-half decades, barring a short stint in government in the late 1970s. This gave him a ringside view of key developments, and a case can be made for studying his life and career before his ascent to power as a microcosm of India's post-independence history from the opposition perspective, especially on the right of the political spectrum. Choudhary's subtitle for his book, "The Ascent of the Hindu Right 1924–1977", suggests that he has done precisely that. Simultaneously, it is essential to read Vajpayee's legacy and Choudhary's book in the context of the extensive and growing body of work on the Hindu Right published in recent years.

The book's other preoccupation is to excavate Vajpayee's life and legacy from under the many myths that have obscured them. These myths – some self-fashioned by Vajpayee, others the products of sustained propaganda – have to do with his unconventional personal life, his supposed academic excellence, an alleged admiration for Jawaharlal Nehru, and, most importantly, his putative secular credentials. This last myth has been so successfully disseminated that even many liberal and leftist Indian intellectuals continue to swear by it, often describing Vajpayee as "the right man in the wrong party", a secular leader of a Hindu Right organisation.

At the launch of his book in Delhi last summer, Choudhary declared that Vajpayee was "the right man in the right party." He added that there was considerable nostalgia, especially among liberals, for Vajpayee's so-called secularism in the face of Modi's relentless Hindu chauvinism. But Vajpayee was a devoted member of the RSS, a champion of its vision of a Hindu India, and came to the organisation's defence every time it found itself in hot water. It is essential to examine his legacy without the nostalgia of misguided liberals or the hero-worship of the Hindu Right. Choudhary's book makes a genuine effort to do just that.


Atal Behari Vajpayee was born in the village of Bateshwar, in what is now the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, in 1924. The RSS was founded less than a year later, on 27 September 1925, by the Hindu activist K B Hedgewar. In some ways, the fates of Vajpayee and the RSS were conjoined from the beginning.

Bateshwar's most distinguished feature is a centuries-old complex of Hindu temples, testament to a prominence long lost and never recovered. About 80 kilometres west of the village is the city of Agra, home to the Taj Mahal and once the capital of the Mughal Empire. According to a popular early 20th-century rumour in the area, which Choudhary records, "Agra's glory had come at Bateshwar's expense, Islamic invasions had ruined this abode of gods." This sort of falsification has emerged over the years as a core part of the Hindu Right's disinformation campaigns. It also informed some of Vajpayee's early literary output as a poet. Choudhary notes that in his earliest surviving poem, 'Taj Mahal', Vajpayee "mourns the apparent exploitation of Hindu workers by the Mughals" during the iconic monument's construction.

The Vajpayees, Brahmins and traditionally priests, followed their accustomed profession until the late 19th century. The break came when Atal Behari's father, Krishn Behari, decided to abjure the study of Sanskrit scripture in Varanasi and chose instead to learn English and get a modern education in Agra. Krishn Behari then worked as a Hindi teacher in the princely state of Gwalior and gained moderate success as a poet and journalist.

Ruled by the Scindias, a Hindu Maratha royal house that had fought the Mughals, Gwalior was fertile ground for the rise of the Hindu Right. During a controversy over the selection of India's national language, the Scindias plumped for Hindi over Urdu because the former was thought to be more closely associated with Hinduism and Sanskrit, while the latter was seen as linked to Muslim culture – an argument still held dear by the Hindu Right. It was in this milieu that Vajpayee's worldview and political opinions were cultivated. He went to school and college in Gwalior and attended sessions of the Arya Samaj, a Hindu revivalist organisation.

Vajpayee's school certificate states that he was born in Gwalior on 1 May 1926, an example of a common tactic to alter a child's official age so as to buy them more time in future to compete for age-limited educational and employment opportunities. This piece of misinformation on Vajpayee's birthplace has proven to have great metonymic power, privileging a convenient myth over a banal fact. Such myths "have become entrenched in public memory," Choudhary writes, and many of them have even made their way into several of Vajpayee's biographies.

The author and journalist N P Ullekh's The Untold Vajpayee: Politician and Paradox (2017) is replete with both factual and conceptual errors. For instance, the writer refers to Gwalior as Vajpayee's birthplace and describes him as a "good student with a special interest in reading, especially the classics and poetry." Choudhury conclusively debunks this notion – as detailed below. For Ullekh, Vajpayee was "a level-headed leader of the country, someone who was a breakaway from the usual mould of Hindu nationalist BJP leaders, someone who was more secular in his thinking."

In Vajpayee: The Years that Changed India (2020), Shakti Sinha, who was Vajpayee's personal secretary and also served him in the prime minister's office, focuses on the challenges of coalition politics. This was a central theme in Vajpayee's political life – the BJP's rise in his time, before it became the political behemoth it is today, could not have come without deft alliance-building and compromises. Sinha provides a ringside view of how coalition partners in Vajpayee's governments demanded their various pounds of flesh, and even offers mild criticism of some of his boss's more cynical decisions. On the whole, however, Sinha seems still in awe of the man he served.

The journalist Kingshuk Nag's Atal Bihari Vajpayee: A Man for All Seasons (2015), bombards readers with facts and anecdotes in an attempt to prove Vajpayee to be a secular politician often at odds with "extreme elements" in the RSS and the BJP. "Everything that was Bharatiya was Hindu," writes Nag, "and in [Vajpayee's] reckoning, the term Hindu did not denote the followers of Hinduism but all those who lived in Bharat that is India." This claim demonstrates a confusion between the ahistorical idea of the Hindu nation of India, sometimes referred to in political discourse as "Hindu Rashtra" or "Akhand Bharat", and the secular nation-state of India formed in 1947.

Another book that perpetuates the myth of Vajpayee's secular credentials is the star journalist Sagarika Ghose's Atal Bihari Vajpayee: India's Most Loved Prime Minister (2021). Ghose claims that Vajpayee was a bridge between Modi and the stridently secular Nehru, who served as India's first prime minister, and even that Vajpayee hero-worshipped the latter. Ghose is an example par excellence of Vajpayee's "liberal" defenders – in an earlier book, Why I Am a Liberal (2018), she has argued for liberal values as essential to a free society. Her biography of Vajpayee, better described as a hagiography, is not just hobbled by the persistent admiration for her subject among many Indian liberals; it also proves the pitfalls of writing history through secondary sources as she does, relying primarily, if not wholly, on earlier work by Vajpayee's ideological sympathisers or writers who accepted the myths around him as fact.

Choudhary, in his preface, takes issue with these writers and such claims. He then proceeds to blow them apart in his chapters with painstaking research to back him up – this, again, detailed below.

The political scientist Vinay Sitapati's Jugalbandi: The BJP Before Modi (2020) is possibly the most erudite contribution to the recent scholarship on Vajpayee and the BJP. This is not a biography, but rather a narrated analysis of how Vajpayee and Advani worked together over some 60 years, taking their party from the ignominy of winning only two seats in the Lok Sabha in India's 1984 elections, to electoral superiority a little over a decade later. Sitapati also explores how the duo's policies and strategies facilitated the growth of the Hindu Right. Finally, the book tries to understand why the BJP's electoral fortunes faltered after 2004, when Vajpayee lost office, till the emergence of Narendra Modi in the 2014 national election.

Atal Behari Vajpayee and Narendra Modi in 2002. Vajpayee, despite his extreme views, has been made to seem more inclusive in his politics in comparison to the even more hard-line Modi. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Atal Behari Vajpayee and Narendra Modi in 2002. Vajpayee, despite his extreme views, has been made to seem more inclusive in his politics in comparison to the even more hard-line Modi. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

But even Sitapati persists with factual errors, such as referring to Gwalior as Vajpayee's birthplace. He also devotes some attention to Vajpayee's alleged secularism, especially when discussing why Advani, who had been the BJP president since 1986, chose to put his colleague forward as the party's prime ministerial candidate ahead of the 1996 national election. Drawing upon archival research and interviews, Sitapati argues that Advani took a pragmatic decision because of the "'secular' image Vajpayee had spent decades cultivating," which would have appealed to a wider swathe of voters.

Sitapati gives credit for this to Rajkumari Kaul, who had a decades-long extramarital relationship, and also a daughter, with Vajpayee. Quoting a source close to Vajpayee, Sitapati writes that she "made Vajpayee far more mellow, secular, cosmopolitan than he initially was. He was quite a provincial politician before he met her." Sitapati finds their relationship to have been "intellectual" at heart. Choudhury, not afraid to call a spade a spade, shows it to have been much more than that.

Choudhary scoured archives in India and abroad for his biography, and also interviewed several people close to the former prime minister. "My book is an assessment of Vajpayee's life, not a tribute," he writes. "As such, one should read it as a detached, unsentimental (not to say insensitive) take on his career and moral character." The book succeeds not just in how it dispels the myths around its subject, but also in how it adds to the growing corpus on the rise of the Hindu Right in India.

The man, the myths

One of the most persistent myths about Vajpayee concerns his presumed academic excellence. Choudhary traces this to Vajpayee's first election campaign, in 1955, when "Atal's resume was given a makeover." The candidate "was to be presented as a prodigy, a self-made man who had chosen to give up an assured career and the fulfilment of conjugal life to save India's soul," he writes. The embellishments included changing his birthplace from Bateshwar to the more worldly Gwalior, exaggerating his involvement in the anti-colonial Quit India Movement of 1942, and giving him a Master's and a Bachelor of Law degree. In 1956, during another election campaign, the RSS's Hindi weekly, Panchjanya, declared that Vajpayee "never stood second". Almost a decade earlier, the magazine's first editor had been Vajpayee himself.

Choudhary tracks down Vajpayee's degrees and marksheets to show that his academic performance was usually lacklustre. "In the spring of 1938, at the end of the eighth grade, Atal sat the Gwalior State Middle School Exams; he was awarded a third division." In his school-leaving exams, in 1941, Vajpayee obtained a second division. During his college years in Gwalior and later in Kanpur, he got increasingly involved in politics. He did take part in the Quit India Movement and was jailed for a few days, but this was nowhere near the sentences that many other agitators served. He completed his Master's but dropped out before he finished his Bachelor of Law degree.

To be fair to Vajpayee, such embellishments are not unusual in Indian politics. Indira Gandhi's son Sanjay, described as India's crown prince by the Washington Post at the time of his death in 1980, was allowed to set up a car factory with no greater qualification than a supposed internship at Rolls-Royce in the United Kingdom. Mamata Banerjee, once a close aide to Sanjay and now the chief minister of the state of West Bengal, once claimed that she had a PhD from the University of East Georgia, which does not exist. In recent years, there has also been controversy over Modi's educational qualifications. While the BJP has claimed that he earned a Bachelor's degree from Delhi University and a Master's from Gujarat University, his political opponents continue to raise doubts over this. There is, however, no doubting that Modi and Banerjee, bitter political rivals, are very successful politicians – just as Vajpayee was too.

Another persistent myth about Vajpayee is his hero-worship of Nehru and the latter's supposed warm reciprocation. According to some sources, Nehru even thought of Vajpayee as a future prime minister. Vajpayee himself was responsible for some of this. During one of his speeches in parliament, in the mid-1990s, Vajpayee harked back to the democratic spirit of debate that prevailed during Nehru's tenure, when he could strongly criticise the prime minister without affecting their personal bonhomie. He also recalled reinstating Nehru's picture in parliament during his brief stint as India's minister of external affairs in the late-1970s. A video of this speech on YouTube has been shared thousands of times and is often cited by liberals nostalgic for the more tolerant climate of Indian democracy in the 1950s and 1960s.

Choudhary finds that Vajpayee's occasional support of Nehru, inside and outside parliament, was more a result of measured realpolitik than any ideological or personal attachment. For instance, during the 1962 war with China, which proved disastrous for India, Vajpayee refused to join other opposition parties in calling for Nehru's resignation. This, in turn, prompted J B Kripalani, once a friend of Nehru's but later a rival, to describe Vajpayee as a "Nehruvian in Jan Sanghi garb."

Choudhary explains, "Vajpayee simply felt that to ask Nehru to resign—in the middle of a war, and only six months after he had been returned to office with a two-thirds majority—was a fatuous, impractical proposition." Even if Vajpayee was not a fan of Nehru, he likely admired the senior politician, at least in public, much like Modi has honoured him.

At every stage, Choudhary interrogates and explains Vajpayee's actions, some of which were in contradiction to his party's official line or the Hindu Right's ideology. His apparent admiration for Nehru, for example, is contrary to the views of the current government, and the Hindu nationalist perspective generally. Since 2014, the BJP has tried to challenge many governance ideals and policies seen as part of Nehru's legacy. In 2014, Modi's government dissolved the Planning Commission, set up in 1950 in line with the socialist ideals of Nehru and his contemporaries. More recently, the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in Delhi was renamed the Prime Ministers' Museum and Library. BJP leaders and workers have so frequently blamed Nehru for India's current social and economic challenges that it has become a running joke.

Then there is the matter of Vajpayee's secularism.

 At a three-day plenary session in Bombay in 1995, Advani, then the BJP president, announced Vajpayee as the party's prime ministerial candidate for the following year's election. Sitapati writes in Jugalbandi that Advani took the decision without consulting the RSS or other powers of the Hindu Right ecosystem, such as the Hindu Mahasabha. Vajpayee's political career was then languishing, and he had been side-lined in his own party. His return to the limelight and eventual career as prime minister forms one of the most fascinating comebacks in Indian politics.

Advani explained his decision in an interview soon after the fact to the journalist Swapan Dasgupta, which Sitapati quotes: "We need the incremental votes. And for that, we need Atalji." Dinesh Trivedi of the Trinamool Congress, once an ally of the BJP and currently its bitter rival for power in West Bengal, tells Sitapati, "Advani was a shrewd politician. I can tell you: Trinamool would not have supported BJP with Advani as PM."

Indian security personnel escort Muslims to safe places during communal riots after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. Vajpayee was mostly absent from the Ram Janmabhoomi movement and hence somewhat insulated from its political fallout, but he was forever a committed foot soldier of the Hindu Right. Photo: IMAGO / agefotostock
Indian security personnel escort Muslims to safe places during communal riots after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. Vajpayee was mostly absent from the Ram Janmabhoomi movement and hence somewhat insulated from its political fallout, but he was forever a committed foot soldier of the Hindu Right. Photo: IMAGO / agefotostock

Advani had spearheaded the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, an ahistorical agitation demanding the construction of a temple to the Hindu god Ram in Ayodhya. In 1992, it resulted in the illegal demolition of a 16th-century mosque that Hindu activists believed had been built on the site of Ram's birth. The demolition was followed by Hindu-Muslim riots across the country and made the BJP an undesirable in political circles for several years.

In 2019, the Supreme Court of India ruled that the disputed site where the mosque had stood would be used to construct a temple to Ram, while Muslim claimants would receive another plot elsewhere for the construction of a new mosque. The inauguration of this Ram temple is slated for 22 January 2024.

Vajpayee was somewhat insulated from the infamy his party suffered because he was mostly absent from this movement. Perhaps, by the late 1980s, when Vajpayee was in his mid-sixties, he understood that the electoral and political dividends from a Hindu supremacist campaign would be limited. But as Choudhary shows, Vajpayee was an especially devoted member of the RSS in his early years, publishing newspapers for the organisation and spreading its propaganda, even if it sometimes included disinformation.

In an early edition of Rashtra Dharma, an RSS publication, Vajpayee wrote that M K Gandhi and other Congress leaders had invited Afghans to invade India during the First World War – a piece of undiluted falsehood. In Panchjanya, Vajpayee attacked Gandhi for his alleged support of India's Muslim minority at the cost of the Hindu majority.

"The dozens of articles he had written and edited holding the Mahatma responsible for India's partition and condemning him for pandering to Muslims had most certainly contributed to poisoning the air that ultimately led to his assassination," Choudhary writes. "Atal most certainly did not consider Gandhi's death a serious loss to mankind." Though Vajpayee had joined Gandhi's Quit India Movement in 1942, he was, like the rest of the Hindu Right, deeply critical of Gandhi and his Congress party.

Choudhary also shows that RSS leaders like M S Golwalkar, who headed the organisation after 1940, did not hesitate to call for violence in the name of protecting Hindus. But immediately after Gandhi's assassination in 1948 by Nathuram Godse, a Hindu Right activist, the RSS distanced itself from the plot. At first it denied that Godse had ever been a member of the organisation; later, it changed tack to claim that he left the RSS long before the plot was hatched. The RSS remains sensitive to any association with the assassination – it sued the Congress leader Rahul Gandhi in 2014 for allegedly blaming the RSS for killing Gandhi.

Choudhary, perhaps surprisingly, does not engage with this controversy at all. The journalist Dhirendra K Jha, whom Choudhary mentions his acknowledgements, has presented archival research in his book Gandhi's Assassin (2021) showing that Godse never really left the RSS. While it is possible Choudhary has side-stepped the issue because it does not directly concern his subject, even a brief engagement with it would have provided some highly relevant context to his readers.

As for Vajpayee, Choudhary writes that after the Indian government banned the RSS following Gandhi's assassination, he displayed a remarkable talent for self-preservation. He was among the few members of the organisation who managed to evade arrest. This talent would serve him well throughout his career as his carefully curated public persona was made and remade. It serves him even now, in death, as his slippery person is made appealing at once to many "liberals" and the Hindu Right.

Another aspect of Vajpayee that most of his biographers ignore but Choudhary explores in some detail is his poetry. His image as a poet was also carefully cultivated by Vajpayee himself. During his tenure as prime minister, he released albums with his poems set to music. In one of these, Antar Naad, the voice is of Lata Mangeshkar, India's best-known playback singer. Shah Rukh Khan, the Bollywood superstar, features in the music video for a song from another release, this one with vocals by the ghazal maestro Jagjit Singh.

Drawing on the historian Francesca Orsini's ground-breaking work The Hindi Public Sphere 1920–1940 (2002), Choudhary locates Vajpayee's poetry within the early-20th-century discourse that identified Hindi as a Hindu language and Urdu as a Muslim language. It is not difficult to imagine which camp Vajpayee belonged to.

Analysing his early poems 'Taj Mahal' and 'Kavi aaj suna ek gaan re' (Poet, sing a song today), Choudhary finds them exceptional for the poet's young age. "They speak of the intense rage and victimhood Atal felt," Choudhary writes, "that he had come to have a sharp, if also narrow and confused, sense of India's history and geography, and the need for its revival." The sense of victimhood is typical of Hindu Right rhetoric, which imagines India's historical Muslim rulers and British colonisers as villains and waxes eloquent about a golden age when India was a "pure" Hindu country.

But Choudhury's analysis tells us nothing about Vajpayee's actual accomplishments as a poet, his position in the Hindi canon, or even his preferred metres and forms. How does he compare to, say, the poet Kunwar Narayan or the writer Shrilal Shukla, both his contemporaries? This is particularly a lack for readers who, like me, are completely ignorant about Hindi literature. It is understandable that a politician's biography might not be too inclined to wade into literary criticism, but such an analysis would have enriched the book further.

Changing face

Since 2014, the year Modi was first elected as prime minister, there has been an outpouring of books on the Hindu Right by political scientists, historians, anthropologists, journalists, and others, reflecting the ideology's present electoral dominance. While it is beyond the scope of this article to provide an exhaustive reading list, it is essential to consider a few key texts to understand the context in which Choudhary's book appears.

The political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot's magisterial Modi's India: Hindu Nationalism and the Rise of Ethnic Democracy (2021) describes the ideals of Modi and his supporters as a form of ethnic democracy comparable to Israel's. Drawing on a framework created by the sociologist and political scientist Juan José Linz, Jaffrelot shows how the current Indian government has eroded democratic institutions, attacked civil-society organisations and universities, and marginalised Muslims and Christians.

Jaffrelot has also co-edited, with the anthropologists Thomas Blom Hansen and Angana P Chatterji, Majoritarian State: How Hindu Nationalism is Changing India (2019). It collects essays from journalists, economists and researchers on caste and gender to decode the "contemporary ascendance of Hindu nationalist dominance to establish a majoritarian state in India." Hansen's The Law of Force: The Violent Heart of Indian Politics (2021) critiques the liberal language of the Indian constitution and the frequently illiberal and violent "force of law" through which India's non-elite masses are disciplined, leading to a sense of hurt that has been weaponised by the Hindu Right.

To Kill a Democracy: India's Passage to Despotism (2021), by the journalist Debasish Roy Chowdhury and the political scientist John Keane, draws upon the French philosopher Montesquieu's idea that those in power can be expected to abuse it, and elaborates on the historical causes for the current government's attacks on civil liberties and democratic institutions. The book was supposed to be published in India by Oxford University Press, but the publisher reportedly decided to drop it following an article Roy Choudhary wrote for Time magazine criticising the Modi administration's Covid-19 vaccine programme, which in turn was criticised by the RSS. To Kill a Democracy was finally published in India by Pan Macmillan.

Choudhary engages with many of the issues raised in this corpus. However, he does not really use or cite any of these titles – though some of the authors have written him glowing endorsements. Nor does his book have a bibliography, which, we must hope, will come with the second volume.

The book would have benefitted from more rigorous editing. With its vast canvas, encompassing a plethora of characters and the byzantine corridors of India's history and politics, no effort should have been spared to ensure even transitions in the narrative. Consider where Choudhary narrates the parliamentary debates on India's national language in the mid-1960s. Vajpayee clashes with C N Annadurai, the Dravidian political leader and a defender of the Tamil language, in 1962. From there the narrative jumps suddenly to 1967, when the government is forced to take a call on the issue. Surely a more detailed account of what transpired in the five intervening years was necessary. Similarly, while describing events in 1967, the narrative swings back without warning to 1965. Such turns can seem jarring to a reader.

Characters could have been introduced into the narrative with more care. For example, readers come across one home minister Nanda – obviously a reference to the Congress leader Gulzarilal Nanda, who served as India's home minister from 1963 to 1966 and its interim prime minister after the deaths in office of Jawaharlal Nehru in 1964 and Lal Bahadur Shastri in 1966. A brief introduction of Nanda would have helped readers not familiar with him and his era.

These are, however, minor irritants in what is a major achievement. Choudhary's book is imminently readable, not only for the depth of his research but also his ability to punctuate dense discussions of politics and policies with entertaining anecdotes. In one instance, he briefly tells the story of how, during the 1965 war between India and Pakistan, China accused India of kidnapping "four Tibetan herdsmen along with a flock of 800 sheep and 59 yaks" on the international border along the north-eastern state of Sikkim. In response, Vajpayee led a procession of 800 sheep to the Chinese embassy in New Delhi, with placards around their necks that read, in Hindi: "Humko khao, duniya ko bachao" (Eat us, but please spare the world).

The Hindu Right was mostly ignored by historians and political scientists till the 1980s, when it asserted itself through the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. Despite the recent spurt in titles on the subject, there remain serious gaps. For instance, there are hardly any book-length studies on the BJP or its predecessor, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh. The notable exceptions are the journalist Saba Naqvi's Shades of Saffron: From Vajpayee to Modi (2018) and the historian Bruce Desmond Graham's Hindu Nationalism and Indian Politics (1990). Choudhary provides insight into many of the debates within the Jana Sangh and also between the Jana Sangh and the wider Hindu Right ecosystem, in both of which Vajpayee took an active part. These debates have been mostly ignored by scholars and journalists, possibly because they did not really influence the government, monopolised by the Congress until more recent decades. But they reveal the genealogy of many of the BJP's current policies, and as such are essential to parse. Choudhary's book also rescues from relative obscurity such characters as Balraj Madhok, Minoo Masani, or even Deendayal Upadhyaya, all of whom left indelible marks on Hindu Right ideology.

Finally, by removing the tapestry of myth and misinformation around Vajpayee's persona, Choudhary reveals the tactical and ideological flexibility of the Hindu Right. This has allowed it, and allows it still, to make and remake its leaders according to the needs of the day. Vajpayee the firebrand and "the Sangh's most loyal son" took a back seat in the mid-1990s, and what emerged instead was a more erudite and cosmopolitan face of the BJP, acceptable to its more liberal allies and voters. The success of this marketing strategy is evident in the persistence of liberal nostalgia about him even now.

A similar strategy was used to rebrand Modi as well. After the 2002 Gujarat riots, he was often described in the media as a divisive figure, and several of the BJP's allies severed ties with the party. However, before the 2014 election, it was the industrial success of Gujarat under Modi's chief ministership that was foregrounded in his campaign, making him a more palatable figure in national politics. It is today not uncommon for urbane and educated Indians to claim that while they do not agree with the Hindu Right, they are in awe of Modi's developmental agenda.

The greatest achievement of Choudhary's book is to reveal the many faces of his subject – a fascinating and convoluted character, eluding any easy classification.

Himal Southasian